EXPECTATIONS: Likable rom-com fluff.
REVIEW: A film like Crazy Rich Asians is a long time a-coming. For the past 25 years since Wayne Wang‘s expansive drama, The Joy Luck Club, there hasn’t been a lot of films in the Hollywood system that were representative of Asian-Americans in substantial roles; let alone assemble a talented ensemble cast.
Here we have the independent film system, where we have many wonderful films spanning different genres of Asian-American persuasion like Justin Lin‘s Better Luck Tomorrow, Junya Sakino‘s Sake-Bomb, Emily Ting‘s It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, Danny Leiner‘s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (which spawned two sequels) or my personal choice of entertainment, Jessica Yu‘s Ping Pong Playa.
And we have the Hollywood film system, where since The Joy Luck Club, we have had films that slot roles for Asian actors/actresses that are small in nature; roles they are repeatedly slotted in (eg. people skilled in martial arts) or worse; roles that are placated insignificantly for the China market (eg. Jing Tian in Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ Kong: Skull Island and Zhang Jingchu in Christopher McQuarrie‘s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation).
Even when Hollywood attempts to tell a story that significantly involves Asian culture, the attempts come across quite poorly or misguided (eg. Rob Marshall‘s Memoirs of a Geisha, which cast Chinese actors for roles of Japanese descent), despite some exceptions like Clint Eastwood‘s Letters from Iwo Jima.
So now we have Crazy Rich Asians, the latest film from director Jon M. Chu, (who is known for directing glossy films like Step Up 2: The Streets, Now You See Me 2 and G.I Joe: Retaliation), which is jam-packed with both established and upcoming Asian talent, including Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Will the film succeed as an entertaining film as well as a stepping stone for representation?
The story follows New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an American-born Chinese professor of economics and game theory, who travels to her boyfriend Nick’s (Henry Golding) hometown of Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang).
Before long, his secret is out: Nick is from a family that is impossibly wealthy (or comfortable, as Nick puts it), he’s perhaps the most eligible bachelor in all of Asia, and every single woman in his higher-upper-ultra-peak social class is incredibly jealous of Rachel and wants to bring her down.
But that is all small potatoes in comparison to the biggest obstacle Rachel has to contend with – Nick’s disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh).
Crazy Rich Asians is a winningly enjoyable romantic comedy and it is also a step towards representation of Asian-Americans in the limelight. Let’s start off with the positives as to why it succeeds as a film. In order for any romantic comedy to work, the chemistry between the lead actors has to be convincing, genuine, enjoyable to watch and they have to compliment each other as well as work separately. Thankfully, both Constance Wu and newcomer Henry Golding are up to the task.
Wu has already proven her mettle in the hit TV show, Fresh Off The Boat, and her roles in films like Zal Batmanglij‘s Sound of My Voice and she takes the reins of the role of Rachel like a pro; exuding charm, humanity and a steadfast demeanor that is both compelling and refreshing for a romantic comedy lead, let alone a female one.
Golding is likable and charismatic in his acting debut. Although he is not given much to do in terms of dramatic range, he not only convinces that he is in love with Rachel from the very first second he’s on-screen (and vice-versa for Wu), he also has an appealing presence that keeps him grounded and down-to-earth, making it easy for the audience to relate to him, aside from his wealthy origins.
The supporting cast are all great in their roles of variable screen-time, including Awkwafina showing good comedic chops as Goh Peik Lin; fellow Aussie Chris Pang lending fine support as Colin Khoo; Gemma Chan, who gives a fantastically nuanced performance as the conflicted Astrid Leong-Teo and Sonoya Mizuno, who finally has a fun character (Araminta Lee) to sink into, who is not a dancer, an android or an extraterrestrial being. But the real standout is Michelle Yeoh, who exudes grace and heart to the supposed antagonist of a character (Eleanor Young) with a performance that could’ve easily veered into evil-stepmother territory.
Another plus is Jon M. Chu‘s direction, which gives the film a strong visual and aural punch that works aesthetically as well as emotionally. Director Chu, editor Myron Kerstein, composer Brian Tyler and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul pace through the various characters with efficiency and briskness, convey the high-life of the titular people as garish and overblown as possible and capture the beauty of Singapore (both the metro and the country) settings beautifully. A well-chosen soundtrack certainly helps, with young artist Kina Grannis‘ Can’t Help Falling In Love With You and Cantopop superstar Sally Yeh‘s cover of Madonna‘s Material Girl (known as 200 Degrees) being the standouts.
But the most important of all, the crew give the film a spit-shine to the romantic comedy tropes that make the genre feel fresh again i.e. relying more on strong characterizations rather than stereotypes (whether cinematic or racial), showing restraint rather than histrionics or even overt emotions and conveying different cultural viewpoints on lifestyle, status and even film tropes. A scene in the third act that involves a conflict between Wu and Yeoh during a round of Mahjong is executed with remarkable subtlety and detail and is emblematic of all of these positives.
So far, what we have proven here is that Crazy Rich Asians is an above-average romantic comedy. But what makes it truly stand out from the pack is the accurate look through filial traditions and viewpoints, which lends the story and the romance a strong, emotional through-line as well as a compelling dichotomy between what is seen as wealthy and what is seen as traditional.
As for the negatives, it is quite overlong at just over two hours and the formulaic trappings of the romantic comedy genre in the script by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli do break through eg. scenes involving a dash to the airport or involving makeovers that have been done many, many times. And there are audiences out there that will say that the film does not represent the true nature of the Singaporean community.
But overall, it is with great pleasure to say that Crazy Rich Asians is a load of fluffy, old-school rom-com fun, thanks to likable leads, memorable characters, visual pizazz and some welcome thematic weight thanks to its respectful look on family traditions. Is it a major step for representation for the Asian community? No, but it is a loud step that people will know about thanks to its keen commercial sense and hopefully, there will be more films like this.
This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Sonoya Mizuno, Jimmy O. Yang, Christopher Pang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenwriters: Adele Lim, Peter Chiarelli, Kevin Kwan (based on his book of the same name)